Art Radar asks the curators of “Cold Nights” to shed light on the exhibition and their curatorial methodologies.
“Cold Nights” at UCCA in Beijing offers a contemporary re-take of the complex human relationships in 1940s China.
Capitalist excess, a dysfunctional family, communication breakdown, and a widening gap between traditional and modern ideologies are some of the issues raised by modern Chinese writer Ba Jin in his 1947 novel “Cold Nights”. Although these problems persist in today’s China, in fact in many societies around the world, they are set in an era of war and conflict in 1940s Chongqing.
Curators Boliang Shen and Zhanglun Dai have taken this novel and created an intricate artistic plot deploying commissioned works from four young artists in “Cold Nights”, running at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing until 17 December 2017. They asked the artists – Chen Zhou, Liu Shiyuan, Nabuqi and Li Ran – to “play” the roles of four protagonists and requested them to create works that reflect the personality of their respective fictional characters as well as echo something about the reality of their own lives.
Art Radar sat down with Boliang Shen and Zhanglun Dai to learn more about the show they co-curated, to discuss the art works they commissioned for this exhibition and to find out about their curatorial methodology.
In recent exhibitions of Chinese contemporary art, we have seen instances where the starting point has been a piece of modern Chinese literature, such as Cheng Ran’s “Diary of a Madman” at the New Museum or “Tales of Our Time” at the Guggenheim, both drawing on the writings of Lu Xun (both 2016/17). What makes your curatorial approach to “Cold Nights” unique?
Zhanglun Dai (ZLD): We invited the artists to read the novel and visualize their feelings and to perform the protagonist through their artistic creation. We didn’t just ask them to interpret the character of their protagonist or to just use the narrative elements of the novel to try to construct the exhibitions narration.
Boliang Shen (BLS): I think, using a literary work as a title or as inspiration for a show is not very different. What makes our show different, is that the artists both create as well as perform the roles. It’s just like they are the actors but they are not just making theater but they play the roles of different characters by creating works of art. The reason we asked the artists to do this, is because nowadays artists only represent themselves and they always make very clear, correct, simple, objective demonstration towards the political and social situation. But in literary works you can see different individuals when they face the situation from their own perspective, their own situation their own feelings, their behaviors are highly different. In China, different artists face the situation in China from the standpoint of their family, their background but as an intellectual you need to give a very objective depiction …However, when I ask you to play the role of other people you can look at the world and people around you in a very different way.
ZLD: The artists told us that this was also a unique approach for them. In other group shows, the artists usually do not see each other until opening day, but for this exhibition from-the-go,they had to communicate with each other very closely. How do I understand you? How do you understand me? And how do we place our work in the shared exhibition space?
Setting the Scene
The Main Protagonist: Wenxuan
Artist Chen Zhou (b. 1987) was assigned the “role” of Wenxuan, the main protagonist of the novel who is a weak and sickly character drowning in the oppressive environment of both his work and home. Instead of getting fulfillment from his job, he is stuck behind a desk as a junior proof-reader in a corrupt publishing house. At home things don’t look much better. His wife is disloyal to him, he is unable to communicate with his mother or son and the situation is exasperated by the poor condition of his health. He suffers from lung disease which makes him cough blood, once even on a manuscript he was proof-reading. He slips more and more into poverty and is unable to adapt to the changing society and circumstances around him.
Chen Zhou was commissioned by the curators to create a corresponding video work. His contribution entitled Blue Hole sees the characters and setting engulfed by blue light, evoking scenes of a cold and distant future world.
Tell us more about Chen Zhou’s video Blue Hole and the accompanying bench.
ZLD: The main character in Chen’s movie is hiding in a [blue] hole, always communicating by phone or via WeChat. Wenxuan, also hides in his home, is unable to communicate with this wife, his mother or the changing world around him. The artist lives in Shanghai and visited together with teenagers night clubs, to experience their lives. He realized that youth in China are very fond of cyber games, they communicate online rather than talk to each other face to face. Chen feels that these teenagers are very lonely and unable to use words to communicate, not unlike the main character in the novel.
BLS: Towards end of the movie there is a butterfly that flies around, but it is stuck. It cannot leave the borders of the frame. Similarly, the only way people communicate today is through their cell phones.
ZLD: A butterfly often symbolizes freedom of spirit in Chinese philosophy such as for example in Zhuangzi. For Chen, the spirit of human beings is not free. Like the butterfly that cannot fly out of the screen.
BLS: The artist made this blue [light] bench, which looks like a screen, for the audience to sit on. So, the faces of the audiences reflect the blue light, like the characters in the movie that are constantly in a blue hole.
Wenxuan’s wife Shusheng
The next work is Liu Shiyuan’s (b. 1985) video The Best is Yet to Come. She has been assigned the character of Shusheng, Wenxuan’s wife. A modern woman who dismisses the role of a submissive wife and daughter-in-law but instead enjoys her lucrative job and the luxuries that wealth and a rich lover can provide. Let us talk more about this work.
BLS: Artist Liu Shiyuan created a sloped space for the audience to lie down on and watch the video screen. The first half of the video depicts the stream of thoughts of a young woman, who could be representative of Shusheng or the artist herself. While looking at the sky, she contemplates time and the chain of events without drawing any conclusions. Gradually the truth reveals itself to her and she discovers the essence of things hinted at through scenes of nature, words and grids of images she created, cartoons or pictures appropriated from 20th century archives.
BLS: Liu tries to create a link between a good and bad life, reality and imagination. She lives in Copenhagen. An alarming number of oysters have flooded the shoreline. The government has declared this a disaster and encouraged people to eat these oysters. The artist feels that this is a strange phenomenon, because oysters are so expensive and considered a delicacy but now they are worthless, even a liability. It is like in the novel, where people enjoy life and have fun even if it is during war time. Also, you can see that the slanted space and the screen together make up the shape of an oyster shell.
The artist responds to some of the details in the novel. For example, we see a girl eating an oyster for the first time. When she tries to swallow the oyster, she feels the oyster is like snot. In the novel, Wenxuan dies from a disease of the lung; mucus was stuck in his throat.
Nabuqi (b. 1984) was assigned the role of Wenxuan’s mother who is very traditional and lives a secluded live with her son and grand-son. She is resentful of her emancipated daughter-in-law. The artist created an installation for this show whose main element is a small room enclosed by curtains with fake plants inside it and lit from within. But her work encompasses several other elements. Tell us more about her installation.
ZLD: Nabuqi’s work is complex and contains several elements. The first part, is the ceiling of the entire exhibition space. It moves from low to high. At the entrance of the exhibition the ceiling was built low and at the exit the ceiling is at its highest.
The reason Nabuqi made this ceiling low is to embody the relationship between Wenxuan and his wife – depressing and oppressive. Wenxuan’s mother always wants to control her son and make him her possession. […] Cleverly symbolising her hate for her daughter-in-law is the shadow that the ceiling throws on Liu’s work, who represents Shusheng.
Her installation made up of fake plants with no soil, no nutrition to sustain them, is like the fate and destiny of the four protagonists that live at a time and in a society where there is no sustenance in their lives [both physically and emotionally]. There is also a fan, which makes the curtains flutter, signifying the fluttering destinies of the four characters in the novel.
The third part of her work is a light, which every nine minutes will flash once for three seconds. In Chongqing, during the war, people would hear a bomb siren signaling the coming of Japanese [fighter jets]. She uses the flash of light to interrupt the time-line of the three videos, which is symbolic of the mother’s interference in the lives of the three young people.When you watch the videos, your eyes are momentarily blinded by the flashing light.
The fourth element in her work are the mirrors. For Nabuqi, the exhibition is like a theater stage, where both the protagonists and the audience are like actors. So, when you walk through the exhibition space, you can see yourself in the mirrors. Nabuqi sees the role of the mother as being dependent. Her life is always dependent on other people’s lives, economically or emotionally. Therefore, from any angle of the exhibition space, you see mirrored in it one of the other works [characters] of the show. In addition, the video works also communicate with each other through the mirrors.
BLS: This space is very difficult for curators to create a show in, because this wall must stay and cannot be removed. So, we incorporated it into the show and we used it naturally as something that stands among the three figures. Nabuqi used the wall in a smart way by attaching a mirror along its length. It is a barrier, an obstacle, a border as well as something that contains everything like a vessel.
This monitor hanging from the ceiling and showing an up-side-down image of a home is also part of her work. What is it?
ZLD: Nabuqi is trying to construct a domestic space. We see a typical modern family home with its furnishings and she turns it upside down. This alludes to the lives of the people in the novel, whose lives were upended. This small work hanging from a high ceiling visually creates a balance with the large installation [on the ground] at the beginning of the space with its low ceiling.
BLS: Nothing is normal. Everything is on an angle. In precarious times people’s lives cannot be normal.
This leads us to the fourth and last work in the show, Night of Patmos, a black and white video by artist Li Ran (b. 1986) who has been assigned the role of Fengguang, the bank manager who is Shusheng’s boss and lover. He represents capitalism and all that is not traditional and that which is modern. Tell us about this video work.
BLS: The character of the lover is rarely directly depicted in the novel, rather he is mentioned through the words of others. The whole family refers to him as “that person” and when he is discussed an atmosphere of fear sets in. Fengguang represents a threatening power that comes from the outside; he is younger, modern and rich. For Li Ran it was hard to depict him directly, so he made up a story to convey the atmosphere [that he conjures up]. He adopts a narrative style used by writers in the 1940s when they describe the peaceful life in Beijing in the autumn or in small cities. He portrays a group of people very joyfully climbing a mountain together.
However, in the end it turns out to be the gathering of a cult in the mountains promising salvation from the doomed world below. Not unlike Fengguang who gives Shusheng assurances of a better life away from the war, even spiritual salvation. In fact, these are all empty promises because there is no escape in a time of crisis. The artist combines historical photographs of theater plays from the 1950s through to the 80s of official theater productions about the good life in China or Chinese actors playing the role of foreigners in exaggerated ways. He restaged sequences from the Bible, but lightly distorted them because he wants to create an atmosphere that is both bizarre and sublime. Most of the parts he chose from the Bible are about power and power relations, for example between Jacob and Isaac.
So, is this where the reference to the title Night of Patmos comes from?
BLS: Yes, because Patmos is where John wrote the “Revelation”.
ZLD: Fengguang is actually a modern man in that city. He tries to imitate the style of foreigners and the most Western style comes from the biblical content.
He loves Shusheng but tries to hide his feelings because he knows that she has a family, a husband. So, he has a monologue with himself about his feelings. So that is why we prefer to use earphones rather than speakers [to hear the soundtrack].
BLS: Because a lover’s voice is only audible in secret or in private.
ZLD: The end of the novel, describes Shusheng flying back to Chongqing with her lover after one year when it has been liberated. She returns to the house where she used to live with her family and finds out that her husband is dead. Her son and mother-in-law have disappeared and no one knows where to. She feels very lonely and very cold at that moment…
What are some future projects you are working on?
ZLD: We are planning a trilogy of exhibitions based on novels. The next one perhaps maybe based on a writer from another country. This was just the beginning and a preparation for our next project.
“Cold Nights” is in view from 15 September to 17 December at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, 4 Jiuxianqiao Rd, Chaoyang Qu, Beijing Shi, China, 100096.
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